I got a call from yesterday. Sister Evangeline needed some information. The fact that I never heard of Sister Evangeline did not matter. I immediately sat up straighter, pressed my knees together and folded my hand properly in my lap. "Yes, Sister," flowed out of my mouth before she could even say anything.
I grew up in the Little Flower Parish. I went to Little Flower Grammar School and Little Flower High School. My childhood was a garden of little flowers. At the time, my high school was the only coed Catholic high school on Chicago's South Side. The Sisters of Mercy taught at my grammar school. As a child, I never understood how they got the name "Mercy." Now as an adult, I understand, maybe.
I did as I was told. I drove over to meet Sister Evangeline at the convent and gave her the information she requested. As I drove home through the streets of Oak Lawn, looking at the houses and village decked out with lights, I began thinking. When did Christmas change? Seeing sister jogged my memories of Christmases past.
I flashed back to the holidays I spent in the Little Flower parish as an adolescent. Those were the days of one car to a family if they even had one. Shoe leather was the main transportation for use kids. We walked to school in the snow, waiting for the final bell to ring for Christmas vacation. When it finally rang we were free.
Little Flower Church was at 80th and Wood Streets. The main artery of the parish was from 79th Street to Ashland Avenue, where the Highland Theater showed double features for 25-cents. Anchoring the parish on the west at 79th and Western was Miss Muffet's Grill that made the best hot chocolate in the world. The parish went as far as 83rd Street to O'Hallaren Park where we ice skated. The train tracks at 76th Street bordered the parish on the north. It was the world to all of the kids who attended the neighborhood's Catholic and public schools: the Bartons, Finnegans, Morgan, Kellys and Traceys, the Bowens, Devlins, Martinis, Bannos and Kuczeros, the Johnsons, Weyburns, Sextons and the Speropolises, to name a few. We all lived together in harmony growing up in the Little Flower Parish.
Christmas Eve was the time when friends and neighbors would come over and enjoy a holiday meal before midnight mass. Christmas Eve was also the day when my family went to buy our tree at an empty lot at 76th Street and Ashland Avenue where someone in the neighborhood would be selling real Christmas trees. My Aunt Kay would drive my mother, my brother, Tom, and I to pick out our tree. Our family picked out a tree usually of the Charlie Brown-variety--at least on one side. I thought it was tradition to choose a tree that was slightly balding but I didn't know it was because of the cost.
The tree would be positioned so that the bald spot faced the wall. Being Christmas Eve, we had to decorate the tree. My favorite part was hanging the homemade ornaments that my brother and I made in school. I carefully hung them in prominent spots on the tree. Tom was appointed to saw the tree's trunk off at the bottom and cut the low hanging branches, bringing the fresh smell of pine into our house.
My brother's friends Ted Kuczero and Art Petersen would come over to survey our tree. After a few Charlie Brown remarks they would leave. If you asked them where they were going, one would always say, "We have to go shoot Santa's reindeer." This old joke started when I was younger and I was never quite sure what that meant. Since Santa always came I thought they were not very good at shots, thank God.
Around 10 o'clock, my friends Mary Jean and Cheetah Kuczero (Ted's sister) arrived and we would start our journey to midnight mass. It was the only time of the year when we could be out after the 10:30 p.m. curfew and we made the most of it. We lived on the north side of the parish at 76th Street and Damen Avenue. Our journey would take us to each of our friends' homes where we sampled the international fare. The Irish always had homemade cookies; the Italian and Polish homes had a meatless meal meaning fish. Needless to say, I ate a lot of cookies. We would meet other groups of kids out and about inviting themselves to the open houses in the neighborhood, with their final destination being midnight mass.
One year, however, I remember when Christmas changed. The last home we stopped at on our rounds of the open houses was Karen Kevin's house near Western Avenue. As usual we went to check out the Kevins' Christmas tree. Imagine our shock when sitting in the middle of the living room was a very green aluminum tree with red satin ornaments. There was a spotlight on the floor illuminating the tree as it spun around on a large electric turntable, the light bouncing off the branches.
We all stood there staring at it with open mouths. Mrs. Kevin was extremely proud of the tree. She had to ask us a couple times what we thought of it. I was speechless, Mrs. Kevin's "Mary Kay, what do you think," jogging me awake. Oh, it has a perfect shape, I mumbled, thinking of the bald spot on our tree at home. Gone were the homemade ornaments that were the usual fare on the trees in the Little Flower Parish. It looked like a tree in a store. The next year more and more artificial trees popped up in front windows in the neighborhood.
However you celebrate this holiday season with q fake or real tree, stop and remember the friends and traditions of Christmas past.